I was worried for my man Josh Hutcherson. After a series of SNL episodes hosted by people with big-name recognition and/or scrolls of juicy press — Gaga! Miley! Edward Norton! — and plenty of material to spoof, Hutcherson is mostly known for playing Peeta in The Hunger Games (or perhaps you were a Laser-head fan of The Kids Are All Right, and I would not take that away from you). Several times over the week leading up to Saturday's episode, I would ask myself, "Who's hosting SNL?" and have no idea what the answer was. A year ago, when Jennifer Lawrence hosted the show, a Hunger Games panel skit poked fun at Peeta's diminutive height and the relative dimness of his star next to the almighty glowing J-Law. In fact, Hutcherson was a funny and subtle performer, even if he rarely took the lead on SNL; there were no traces of a big, throbbing ego, and his subtlety complemented the material — the strange, strange material. "Bugs: Where the Heck Do You Gotta Be?" and Beck Bennett's baby-bodied "Office Boss" gave me the same sillies as Zach Galifianakis's "Darrell's House" did earlier this year (Parts 1 and 2).
This weekend, Lady Gaga hosted SNL for the first time. She had appeared as a musical guest twice, once with Ryan Reynolds and once with Justin Timberlake, and popped up in couple of digital shorts ("3-Way (The Golden Rule)" always deserves a link), but it's kind of surprising she hadn't been a host before, especially during her 2008-09 promotional circuit for The Fame. Her excitement at joining the cast for a night was palpable, as though a 19-year-old Stefani Germanotta had taken over, and she approached her gig with earnest eagerness. In fact, a lot of Saturday's material seemed tailored to Gaga-esque themes, revolving around precocious theater kids and what it means to age out of relevancy (not that Gaga's over the hill by any means, but the way she played a septuagenarian had enough layers to reveal she'd thought a lot about it). She rolled over to allow us (and R. Kelly) to perform push-ups on her abdomen and poke fun at her image, and even when she was striving a little hard to make her eyeballs THIIIIIS BIG as a dorky Apple Genius, she committed to everything she did as a double-duty host and musical guest (and she didn't hang on the cue cards at all, impressively).
Responding to critics is never easy to do, nor is it often advisable. Sometimes it's better to ignore your detractors, or to change your behavior instead of getting caught up in a conversation about whatever it was you did that offended them in the first place; other times, the people yelling at you are making some good points, and you really have no choice but to answer them. Saturday Night Live has caught a decent amount of heat this past season for continuing to resist diversifying its cast, particularly by failing to cast a black woman while still keeping six white men in the ensemble, and finally found itself in the position of deciding whether or not to chime in. Kenan Thompson and Jay Pharoah have offered different takes on the problem, with Thompson unpopularly claiming that the show has failed to find more people, especially women, of color who are "ready", while Pharoah seemed more into the idea of looking around a little bit harder (and suggested Darmirra Brunson). When Kerry Washington was announced as a host, it was reasonable to assume that we could finally see Michelle Obama appear in a sketch and that — just maybe — the show would address the controversy, but I didn't expect that we'd get a scrolling-text PSA about it.
Lorne Michaels called adding a black woman to the cast a "priority" in an AP interview last week, which I certainly hope it is, especially after Washington's episode. It wasn't just that she was funny and poised and showed her range, but that the constraints of approaching material without a female person of color had been temporarily lifted. The fact that we're having a conversation about it is good, but the need for that conversation is disheartening.
Man, was I nervous for Edward Norton. The last episode of SNL, which was followed by a two-week break, was rough. Bruce Willis mumbled, the sketches were overall pretty weak, and someone in the comments of my recap wished that Willis had busted out his cover of "Under the Boardwalk" to save the sinking ship (someone also suggested that SNL was just going to feature the whole cast from Moonrise Kingdom). That's not a good sign. This past weekend's host, Edward Norton, has a reputation for being, uhhh, controlling, and without Norton having a current project to promote, it was hard not to worry that this week would suffer from the same problems that plagued it last time (and though Norton has proven his comedic chops with Everyone Says I Love You and Death to Smoochy, he's still much better known for his more dramatic contributions). Instead, Norton was smooth, game, and ready to get weird. I might go so far as to call him a Mrs. Dalloway — the perfect host. And though the show wasn't perfect, it almost seemed as though some of the criticisms launched in its direction recently — Pharoah's Obama, the one-note jokes of "Weekend Update" guests like Anthony Crispino (secondhand news reporter) — had been heard and processed.
Last week, I broke my hands writing about Miley Cyrus's SNL double-duty hosting gig. Electric currents ran through my fingers from my very soul, and I typed 580,000 words without blinking. I thought, I should scale back. I told myself, Shut up, you're on Page 95. I couldn't stop, and I wouldn't stop, and some gigantic cosmic force had to step in my path and holler CEASE, BLOGGER. That force was Bruce Willis. Brevity is now my friend.
It's not that I have anything against Bruce Willis. I like Willis so much that I own a copy of his 1987 R&B album, The Return of Bruno, and have listened to it more than twice. Was I skeptical of this hosting choice? Maybe. Willis has nothing to promote at the moment, with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For lingering in post-production and Red 2 disappearing in the rearview mirror. A host without a vehicle doesn't necessarily spell disaster, but it seemed like weird timing. After SNL wakes up from its hiatus nap on October 26, Edward Norton — another actor with no current merchandise — is set to headline, which is strange enough that I have no choice but to assume that the government shutdown's ripple effect has extended to Hollywood like a butterfly flapping its wings in the Congo. The unfortunate casualty of employing an emcee with nothing to shill is that everything seems strangely post-dated (I see you, Armageddon reference), and the episode seemed like it dropped out of a wormhole, a mediocre object with no spatial or temporal relevance.
In the span of less than a week, Miley Cyrus got into a cyber fight with Sinead O'Connor, was the subject of a New York Times piece defending her against critics, and pulled double duty hosting and musical-guesting on SNL. Everyone seems to be joining forces to put Miley through Olympian-level trials while staring so hard at her that anyone else would spontaneously combust under such scrutiny.
At times it feels deliberate, as though we're trying to edge Miley closer to what haters are predicting will be an inevitable train wreck. She lobbed some insensitive tweets at O'Connor, referencing via screengrab and the text "Before there was Amanda Bynes" a public meltdown the Irish musician had in 2012, with which she drew criticism from pretty much everyone, not least of whom was O'Connor herself; still, Cyrus offered (OK, somewhat cheekily) to meet up with O'Connor to talk in person. Amanda Palmer got involved, as did Simon Cowell, if only by proxy. It was a train wreck, for sure, but Miley seemed to duck out before she could incur too much damage. She doesn't spend a lot of time on introspection. She's too busy. And anyway, too much introspection is dangerous for a performer who's running his or her own game: Miley's dancing on the edge, so she knows better than to look down.
Saturday Night Live is a storied franchise that has found ways to cultivate stars until they're ready to be released into the wild, while continually finding the next generation of comedians to keep the show relevant. But many feel that the show refuses to be truly progressive because of the racial homogeneity of its cast.
Last week, as the 39th season began, some were taken aback by the introduction of the six new featured players, because all of them are white.
When asked about this, Jay Pharoah, a black cast member too often used to impersonate the people Kenan Thompson (and, until recently, Fred Armisen) cannot, told The Grio about his feelings on SNL’s hiring practices and the show's blatant lack of diversity, referencing the star of Tyler Perry's Love Thy Neighbor:
They need to pay attention. Her name is Darmirra Brunson ... Why do I think she should be on the show? Because she’s black first of all, and she’s really talented. She’s amazing. She needs to be on SNL. I said it. And I believe they need to follow up with it like they said they were going to do last year ...
It’s one of those things that’s hard. Some people choke up. Some people burn their bridges by saying things they shouldn’t say either. You just have to be very political about your delivery, what you say, and your performance. You’ve got to be on point. Everybody has to like you and want you to win. If they don’t like you, it’s a wrap.
Saturday Night Live has died and been reborn more than a handful of times over the ages, and there's no doubt that this season is a "rebuilding year," as the premiere's spirit guide and host, Tina Fey, suggested. Over the past two seasons, the show has bid good-bye to Andy Samberg, Kristin Wiig, Abby Elliott, Jason Sudeikis, Bill Hader, and Fred Armisen (plus last year's newbie Tim Robinson, who has been bumped from featured player to staff writer, and Seth Meyers, who exits in February). The amount of concern this causes you is probably largely based on how familiar you are with the results of past recasting adventures and how dedicated you are to staying up to speed on fake commercials. We have witnessed disastrous eras over the course of SNL’s long history: This vintage New York magazine feature paints a very severe and depressing portrait of the 1994-95 period, another transitional year, which player Janeane Garofalo called "the most miserable experience of [her] life."
The announcement of this season's six new cast members was met with some frustration — again, SNL had shied away from plugging any diversity into its universe, adding five white men and one lone white woman to its roster. Maybe this was an honest assessment of the talent base (somehow I doubt it), maybe it has to do with Lorne Michaels's mysterious star radar, or maybe it's just plain lame. To be fair, the rookies performed well (when they were allowed to), with a negligible amount of visible jangled nerves. When an episode decides to highlight Michelle Obama or Kim Jong-un in a skit, though, I'm going to shred it. J-Pop America Funtime is over.
In case you had any doubt (how could you have had any doubt?), Jason Sudeikis is officially leaving Saturday Night Live after 10 years on the show, two as a writer and eight as a performer. SNL bid good-bye to veterans Fred Armisen and Bill Hader in its most recent finale, and with Seth Meyers’s departure when he takes over the Late Night seat this winter, it’s impossible to predict what to expect from its 39th season (though we do know that Stefon creator John Mulaney’s sister Claire will be joining the writing staff). It would be nice to see more people of color join the ensemble, a shortcoming that has been a sticking point for SNL viewers for a while, especially when impersonations come into play.
With the addition of Cecily Strong and Kate McKinnon, the cast — especially its women — still has a strong core, so it seems that what will make or break SNL’s near future are the changes made in its writers' room. “Weekend Update” has remained consistently brilliant in the past few seasons, but sketch-wise the show could benefit from a mix-'em-up. Even the most talented writers fall into the warm, sleepy embrace of slump valley: When you answer the question of whether you're planning to exit a show with “definitely,” you know the snooze alarm has been thwacked to capacity. It’s time. Go sexercise into the sunset with your Wilde woman like "Kenyan marathon runners," good sir, for you have earned this privilege. Now let us celebrate you, your sketches, and your chiseled body of work.
The 38th season of SNL was not its best. After Mick Jagger sang Kristen Wiig off the show last year in an emotional farewell (Andy Samberg and Abby Elliott departed with her), this season’s exits — both rumored and confirmed — were given a subtler treatment. This season's 21 episodes were occasionally brilliant, but more often they seemed to belong to a kind of blameless nowheresville in need of some substantial bulldozing. The veterans — Fred Armisen has been kicking around for 10 seasons, while Jason Sudeikis became a featured player in 2005 — have appeared understandably tired; the death of the Digital Short haunted bad episodes, whispering, "Remember me fondly?" from a corner of the ceiling. The writing was not universally bad, but it was uneven, perhaps even more so than in previous seasons. And whereas Wiig’s exit was somehow gut-wrenching (which "Ruby Tuesday" "She's a Rainbow" can be), when Bill Hader and Armisen bid good-bye to Lorne Michaels & Co., it felt like the right time for them to go. Sudeikis is probably out as well, and head writer and "Weekend Update" anchor Seth Meyers will only be able to stay with the show through the fall until he takes over Late Night, which means that next season has no choice but to attempt an evolutionary leap. Again. It might be auspicious: Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong have proven to be formidable additions to the roster, and Taran Killam and Bobby Moynihan have each hit their stride; there’s also the opportunity to bring in more people of color, wackier writers, and to mess with the format in a way that might shake the stale cooties out of the sheets a little bit. You have to know when to leave the party, and this mass exodus seems to indicate that it’s time to flip on the lights and survey the room. Being the host of this kind of show isn’t exactly a thankless exercise, but the host was not the point. Ben Affleck was tasked with competing for attention not only with musical guest Kanye West, whose head was basically spinning on his neck in a self-consuming Yeezus rapture-state (love you, ’Ye), but the departing cast members' curtain calls. Did he succeed? Of course not, but he wasn’t meant to.
This weekend's Saturday Night Live has the auspices of greatness. It's not only the season finale, but also the last episode for Bill Hader (and quite possibly for Fred Armisen and Jason Sudeikis as well). And while Hader has already said there's nothing as dramatic planned for his good-bye as Kristen Wiig's lovely "She's a Rainbow" bit — they gotta do something nice, right? Also: Ben Affleck returns to host, but this time as an Oscar-winning director and if you think somehow Matt Damon won't be getting involved to cut his buddy down to size, youh ahh fawkin' crazy. And then there's Kanye as a musical guest: Not only is he embroiled in the most dramatic childbirth process since that of Jesus, he's also got a God-complex album everyone can't wait to hear. Plus, the last time he did SNL, it looked like this.
Bill Hader was an SNL presence so precious, he merits more than one good-bye. His impressions were among the cast’s best (Kate McKinnon, I see you), but he also brought to life original characters that were layered despite the limits, time-wise and otherwise, of the sketches in which they appeared: Stefon, Vinny Vedecci, Greg the Alien, and, though he simultaneously terrified and depressed me, senile reporter Herb Welch. Hader was responsible for the majority of the personae you wanted to hang out with after their four-minute segments ended; they were always so charming, even when they were embodied by a bloodthirsty, guts-hungry take on Dateline’s Keith Morrison. If they were real, you would want to park their imaginary butts on your sofa to take in all of Hader’s Criterion double-feature picks, drink margaritas, and gab. Hader shines bright like a di-mon, and when I attended a showing of The Great Gatsby last night, huddled under a gray cloud of casting-department disappointment, I mentally replaced Tobey Maguire with Bill Hader for a second. He seems able to take on anything, from a hypothetical Nick Carraway to James Carville to creative consulting/producing South Park. As we look forward to Hader’s next move and contemplate the uncertain future of SNL, let’s spend an hour or so staring zonk-eyed at the computer in honor of some of his greatest hits. Cue up the DJ Baby Bok Choy single, everyone. It’s Stefon’s funeral (just kidding, he’ll pop back up in a year to give a special appearance like Gilly) and we’re going to Boof to shoot meth mixed with his ashes.
How long is a year in cultural terms? Or maybe a better question is, when a public figure disappears from a show for a year after a tearful good-bye, at what point does his or her return become what you want it to be? The problem with inviting Kristen Wiig back to host SNL 12 months after her departure to reprise her roles — as Gilly, improvisational songstress Kat, Doonese, a Californian, and the Target Lady — is that we haven't had enough time to miss them yet. The best sketches of the night were the ones that featured Wiig in roles we hadn't seen her in before (scuttling across the ceiling as a Korean water ghost!), but SNL is predictably self-referential, so Wiig's best-of collection was practically obligated to appear. It didn't make for a bad show, especially because of Wiig's matchless energy and the obvious joy on the cast's part to get to play with her again, but the laughs you get from being borne back ceaselessly into the past are always tempered with a little sadness, like showing up to your one-year high school reunion. Being reminded of the events of a year ago lacks the potency of real nostalgia as well as the fresh promise of something that straddles the present and the future, a sketch that works so well the first time around that you crave more of it (and then repeats four times after you've grown unable to stand it anymore). Wiig is still one of the best comediennes out there, but occasionally she was upstaged by her own homecoming.
The cold open was terrible, but the good news is that everything improved from there. C-SPAN's coverage of the Benghazi hearings is trolling for ratings, so Jodi Arias (Nasim Pedrad) and Ariel Castro (Bobby Moynihan) appear to testify as special guest stars. The audience sounded pretty chilly on this little joke desert, but I'll give it points for being brief. Wiig's monologue, during which she sang “I'm So Excited” and danced herself backstage, was charming enough: misidentifying her former cast mates and dressing room, Tasering Kenan Thompson twice, and happening upon a pregnant Maya Rudolph making out with Jonah Hill in the closet (“We're trying to make a baby”) were high points. Gilly's moment was over in a blink, which was good news for me over in the Gilly-averse corner. It's nice that Wiig is poking fun at her camera-1, camera-2 amnesia after such a short absence, but if you didn't already figure that you were in for more old than new sketches, this monologue killed any lingering doubts.
Zach Galifianakis likes to make people uncomfortable, and he's very skilled at it. Besides two previous hosting gigs (pianos, removal of facial hair and hair-hair), Galifianakis's SNL past includes being thrown out of the audience for trespassing and getting canned after two weeks on the job as a writer, so when he advised the audience not to get their hopes up, it seemed like a suitable enough disclaimer: Galifianakis does what he does; he's unwilling, or possibly unable, to do anything else. His shtick hasn't changed much over the years, but his weirdness has found its place in the temperate tropical breezes between the ferns of time. His most recent turn as host was even better than when he dressed up as Annie and lip-synched to "Tomorrow" in 2010. Like a fine, stocky half-Greek wine, his brand of comedy is aging well, and this was a great episode despite universewide disappointment that Jennifer Aniston was nowhere to be found in the final seconds of her look-alike contest spot. That Vanessa Bayer was such a dead ringer only made it a crueler tease. If you need me, I'll be crying over at Darrell's house where I can re-cut everything with more egg rolls and Aniston.
I had an argument recently about the effects of watching a Saturday Night Live host visibly read the cue cards. I was arguing that it's distracting and sometimes seems to imply a lack of skill that undercuts anything good the performer is up to otherwise. My opponent countered that the whole point of SNL is the roughshod immediacy, and since the cue cards can change at any point from rehearsals to the taping, we should just accept it as part of the show's infrastructure. Maybe because the topic was already on my mind, I was completely blown away by Melissa McCarthy's performance this past weekend. It's kind of crazy that she was never a cast member, because she's a sketch prodigy. The second-time host's skills made watching sketches like "Million Dollar Wheel" — a basic throwaway — like an informative course in how to cram scripts into your being, into your soul, so that they still feel unpredictable and improvised. A mediocre bit dies between the time it takes to set up and when you first check to see how much longer it can possibly lie on the floor until production's janitor comes to carry it away on a stretcher. McCarthy never let that happen, because she never really allowed you to feel as though you knew what was going to come next.
The cold open kicked off with Bobby Moynihan as Kim Jong-un delivering two pieces of important news: First, the reopening of a nuclear complex that will leave North Korea's enemies "chagrined and discombobulated;" and, second, lifting a ban on same-sex marriage because "it is simply the right thing to do" (his eyes were opened by his gay nephew's weekly book discussion groups at his apartment — the nephew was executed anyway, but not because of that). Jong-un's open-mindedness isn't an indication that he's switched teams, however — so don't go thinking that! — because he's had relations with over 17 million women, whom he provided with their first orgasms ("this is not a joke. You can applaud"). Just as he trails off into his NCAA tournament pool, Dennis Rodman saunters in wearing polka-dot pants, fist-bumps him, and delivers your "Live from New York!" Remember when Rodman blew up a cold open in 1996? I didn't, but there he is, preserved in his boa. It wasn't my favorite cold open of all time, but it was good enough.